The Vaudeville Hook

We are all familiar, I think, with the cliché of the vaudeville-era performer who overstays his welcome on stage, or irritates or offends the audience and/or the theater’s management, and is summarily removed from said stage by application of an implement like a long shepherd’s hook. This concept has been well established in the popular consciousness by its frequent use in comedy animation, as seen here:

It’s sufficiently well-known as an expression that the crab-god Tamatoa in Moana can make a punning reference that Maui should “get the hook,” and we understand the double meaning immediately.

This topic happened to come up in conversation recently, and it occurred to me to wonder whether this cartoon cliché has any sort of basis in historical fact. I assumed it would not be literally true, because the size of the typical theater makes it logistically implausible that such a long hook could be extended all the way from the wings to center stage. But the notion had to come from somewhere, right?

After a fair amount of searching, I found some historical references claiming that the hook gimmick originated at the Miner’s Bowery theater around 1900 (example). The citations aren’t great, though, with some sources being modern articles (there’s a paywalled NYTimes article from 1997 here, for instance). This source (The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville) also points to the Miner’s Bowery, but says the practice “is probably more legend than reality.” This source claims that the hook was “lashed to a long pole,” which somewhat addresses the issue of practicality I mentioned above, but considering the dimensions of a typical stage, this still strikes me as being improbable. It does, however, have the advantage of a relatively timely citation, to a 1908 newspaper article, which evidently mentions the hook as “a standard prop in every theater featuring amateur nights.” It’s unclear how the hook was actually used by these theaters, but it’s a cite.

The thing is, though, this connects to what I found in other sources describing the removal of performers during Amateur Nights at other venues (e.g. the Apollo). These say their promoters/presenters (notably including the then-famous tap dancer Howard “Sandman” Sims) would chase off, rather than catch and drag, subpar acts while wielding threatening props like brooms and cudgels and cap guns and the like, including the aforementioned hook.

So therein lies the question. Is there any reliable contemporary documentary evidence to support the notion that untalented artists were, in any location, and with any consistency, bodily removed from the stage via physical ensnarement by a curved device dedicated to that purpose? Or is this one of those things where ginned-up stories and loose memories of a somewhat anarchic time slowly crystallized around a simplified image, i.e. a stage manager merely threatening a performer by waving a hook was remembered as actually using the hook, and then this was cemented into our collective memory by its frequent and prominent usage in widely seen cartoons?

(Note to mods: Yes, the topic of this question is the performing arts, but I’m seeking factual and historical information about a theatrical practice, rather than opinions or speculation, so I thought this forum would be more appropriate than the Cafe.)

This is from a book I read just a few months ago.

“Vaudeville may have been clean, but it bred cruelty. The method of using a giant hook to yank acts from the stage seems like an invention of cartoons, but the basis for the cliché was real. A showman named Henry Clay Miner invented it for his amateur night at Miner’s Bowery Theatre in the 1880s. If the act was deemed rotten, a stagehand was cued to remove the performer with a massive hook and a violent tug. The sheer rancor of this spectacle turned Miner’s amateur nights into a profitable draw. George Burns once relayed the story of a theater owner in the 1920s whose cruelty surpassed the hook, using an even more humiliating instrument—the hoop. “A man with a hoop would sit in the front row during the performance, and if he thought the act was lousy he’d use the hoop to pull the performer right over the footlights.””

— The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff

There are a lot notes in the back of the book for other stuff on the same page, but nothing for the Miner claim or George Burns story.

Wow. Makes The Gong Show seem kind in contrast.

The “hook” was used for comedic affect in removing players from the stage.

Have you ever been on stage or backstage in a real theater? There is plenty of room for a hook of that size in the wings and vertically backstage.

I have a degree in theater and a two-page resume.

My logistical objection is that the distance from the wings to center stage would require the handle of the shepherd’s hook to be stretched to fifteen or twenty feet in length, or more, in order to operate according to the cliché (i.e. the hook appearing from behind the proscenium arch and extending out to snag the recalcitrant performer). For comparison, a pole vaulter’s pole is seventeen feet, and it doesn’t have a hook on the end creating extra weight. I don’t see how such an implement wouldn’t be seriously wobbly and unstable.

They were. They weren’t designed to forcefully pull the performer off the stage against their will. It was a comedic device that the player’s went along with.

When and where has it been used?

In practice, the hook probably came from the backdrop curtains behind the performer.

FWIW, the Bowery Theatre’s stage seemed rather small.

Whilst I’m still not sure if any evidence exists of that happening except as a relatively modern parody of itself, that does seem like the only method that would really have worked in practice.

TV Tropes has an intriguing (though uncited) explanation:

The real purpose of these hooks was to pull back the curtains at the start of the show in older theaters. Presumably, theatergoers at the time knew what they were for, making it that much funnier to see them being used to yank bad performers off the stage. As theater technology evolved, the hooks’ original use has been forgotten over time and nowadays they’re much better-known for their use in comedy.

Who’s this “we”? (Sorry, Tamatoa, I didn’t get it.)

This is mine understanding, also. One of the crew walks onto the stage with the hook, applies it to the performer, and they walk off stage together. Any struggle is acting for the amusement of the audience, and hopefully making them more receptive for the next act.

The Times article cites Luc Sante’s 1991 book, Low Life.

Giving Them the Hook

Q. Did the practice of giving an unpopular stage performer ‘‘the hook’’ begin at the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night?

A. Actually, ‘‘the hook’’ first appeared at Miner’s Bowery Theater, where in the 1890’s amateur night was held every other Friday.

Vaudeville was born on the Bowery and Miner’s added a popular twist by offering a dollar to anyone willing to take the stage and perform, regardless of talent or ability, according to Luc Sante, whose 1991 book ‘‘Low Life’’ includes a history of the early New York stage. Audience reaction became part of the spectacle, Mr. Sante said, and the less talented jugglers, blackface comedians and newsboy quartets who took the stage endured a salvo of jeers, whistles and catcalls.

To get the more excruciating acts off the stage as quickly as possible, an inspired stage manager apparently lashed a stage-prop shepherd’s crook to a pole and started yanking the most scorned performers bodily from the stage in mid-performance. The audience responded lustily, Mr. Sante said, and '‘Give ‘im the hook’’ became a favorite taunt.

I’ve read Low Life and I remember it as being good, but I can’t vouch for every claim. From their wording, all the later cites that I found almost certainly trace back to Sante, though.

But he wasn’t the first. Anthony Slide published The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville in 1994 and offered specifics and documentation.

The notion of using a hook to remove unpopular performers from the vaudeville stage is probably more legend than reality. The first hook was used at Miner’s Bowery Theatre, New York, in October 1903. During an amateur night performance, a tenor refused to leave the stage despite the hisses and jeers of the audience. The theatre’s owner, Tom Miner, took an old-fashioned crook-handled cane and had his property man, Charles Guthinger, attach it to a long pole. Miner then reached out, hooked the singer by the neck, and removed him from the stage. Apparently, the audience was so amused by this device that when the next hapless performer arrived onstage, a boy in the gallery shouted, “Get the hook.” The legend was born, and by 1908, The New York Dramatic Mirror reported that the hook was a standard prop in every theatre featuring amateur nights.

"History of ‘The Hook.’ " The New York Dramatic Mirror, May 16, 1908, p. 16.

I couldn’t find that article, but has a half dozen or so hits for a syndicated newspaper article from 1908, like this one that reported a booklet, Get the Hook!, published by H. [Henry] Clay Miner - not Tom Miner - to give him the credit, as well as a mention of “the hook” used in France to call for a long-winded Senator to give up the floor.

Whether Guthinger or anybody at Miner’s Bowery really was the first or ever did it in practice is of course unproven by this, but the phrase in its historic meaning unquestionably was being used in the 1900s.

Footnote: Sante recently transitioned to Lucy Sante and so some references to the earlier books have been changed while others haven’t.

The invaluable Barry Popik has a column about the hook that includes a number of early examples.

23 December 1905, Boston (MA) Globe , “Small Boys Began to Shout ‘Get the Hook,’” pg. 1:
As the convention of the Holy Jumpers grows older, the attendance increases, fully 300 men, women and boys being present at last evenings service. Brother C. L. Harvey preached last night. (…) He had been speaking about ten minutes when some of the small boys began to shout, ‘GET THE HOOK.’ Brother Harvey at this point closed his address.

28 December 1905, New York (NY) Times , pg. 9:
No association game ever played in South Boston equaled in roughness the game between the Maley A. C. and the South Boston high second team. (…) Toward the end of the game the spectators cried ‘GET THE HOOK’ because the match had developed into a rough and tumble specialty.

13 February 1906, Boston (MA) Journal , “‘Get the Hook!’ Boys Yell at Higginson,” pg. 1:
“Get the hook!” yelled half a dozen small boys at the conclusion of the speech of Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who addressed the boys of the North bennet Street Indisutrial School last night on the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday.

27 September 1906, New York (NY) Times , pg. 2:
“Get the hook,” yelled a delegate.

25 January 1907, New York (NY) Times , pg. 3:
Hardly had the curtain gone up on the sketch of the Russell Brothers, who portray comic Irish servant girls, when screams and catcalls arose from the orchestra and galleries. In all parts of the house men arose, shouting, “Take 'em off,” “Get the hook,” “Away with 'em,” “They’re rotten.”

Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections
6 April 1907, New York (NY) Clipper , pg. 208, col. 1 ad:
(The Vitagraph Company of America. – ed.)

12 January 1908, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune , pg. B3:
Has the slang of “get the hook” reached you? It originated with the “amateur nights” in vaudeville, when aspirants are tried and usually found wanting. Sometimes the stage manager reached out with a hooked pole to pull the worst of them in. After the Washington start of “Miss Hook of Holland,” one word in the title took on pertinency, for Frohman “got the hook” and jerked the principal two comedians out of it.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
16 May 1908, New York (NY) Dramatic Mirror , pg. 16, col. 3:
“Get the hoolk” has become part of the language, and those who like to know the origin and history of slang expressions will be interested in a booklet that has been gotten out and copyrighted by H. Clay Miner, that tells all about this quaint expression. According to this pamphlet, the first hook was used at Miner’s Bowery Theatre in October, 1903. Tom Miner was superintending an amateur night performance, and a would-be tenor refused to leave the stage, in spite of hisses and jeers. Mr. Miner spied in a corner and old-fashioned hook-handled cane, and calling Charles Guthinger, the property man, had him lash it to a long pole. Mr. Miner then reached out, hooked the singer around the neck and yanked him in. This tickled the gallery boys immensely, and the next aspirant has not proceeded far before a lad in the “roost” shouted “get the hook!” The name of the boy may never be known, but his apt expression will live for many a day. The original crude hook has been improved upon, and now it is a “prop” in every theatre in which amatuer nights are a feature.

In Moana, Maui is a demigod whose power is focused through a magical fishhook, which he has lost, and is eager to regain (as doing so will unlock his godly power).

This is excellent, thank you.

It’s still a bit ambiguous about how exactly the hook was deployed (elongated handle, from the wings? shorter handle, reaching in from the curtain gap behind the performer? stagehand goes on stage with the hook and snags the target up close?) but I think we’re in the murky space between myth and reality and it’s unlikely that we’ll concretely narrow the gap.

That’s really all I was asking: the legend came from somewhere, but how closely does the popular image align to what was actually done? Can we even really know?

Anyway, thanks all for the contributions.

That part I got. The vaudeville reference I did not, until Cervaise’s explanation. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “get the hook”, just the hook gag itself.

Damn good cite-Thank you.

One Hook to Rule Them All?